Freedom: Getting to Franzen’s Fiction


Is it just me or does it seem like Jonathan Franzen is that writer and novelist who everybody begrudgingly admits they like reading in spite of walking away from every interview with the man (and a couple of his essays) with an acute feeling that he is simply one of the most disagreeable people you’ve ever heard speak in your life? I don’t know if I have ever finished a single interview of Franzen, despite the fact that I am a pretty avid partaker in author interviews. It’s not even that he says things that I necessarily disagree with as much as it is that he seems just so off-putting. This has honestly kept me from getting around to reading his novels as quickly as I had originally planned to. You see I bought both The Corrections and Freedom around the same time, both for about a dollar a piece, one from Amazon, the other randomly at BAM. I was still on a David Foster Wallace high and knew that DFW loved Franzen’s work. Yet I found myself unable to get excited about reading Franzen. I like scouting authors (moreso than I do their books, even), and Franzen was just really difficult to be excited about. But I knew I was making myself miss something. I finally read a book of essays, How to Be Alone, and when the film The End of the Tour was released I read Franzen’s essay on DFW (which is top-notch) and knew I really needed to get around to reading his novels.

So here I am, a few months later, having spent a week with Freedom and trying to grasp at whether or not it was absolutely great or if it simply tricked me with an array of characters that are for the most part so well crafted that it was impossible to not become emotionally involved with all of them. Freedom‘s premise seems to be that the Rolling Stones were wrong and that you can absolutely get what you want, but it might just kill you in the process. “Kill” here is not to be literally understood. Much like DFW, Franzen seems to operate under the idea that some parts of existence are worse than death; depression and anxiety headlining the list. Freedom takes an assortment of characters and sends them through the blender of their own desires to see what happens.

Freedom primarily follows Walter and Patty Berglund, with a few chapters mixed in that cover Walter’s best friend Richard Katz, and Joey Berglund, Walter and Patty’s son. Each character is richly developed and well-spun, which is truly why the novel succeeds. Freedom‘s sections are long-winded, each a continuous flow of narration interrupted here and there with flashbacks and some dialogue. When you finish a section that is 70+ pages you feel that it deserved all the time it got and when you finish a shorter 30 page section, you can easily feel that it should have been longer. Most of the novel is spent with Patty, with two sections being from her autobiography that she wrote at the behest of a therapist. Perhaps the first excerpt from the autobiography feels tired at times, but I will excuse this as I would argue that Franzen does this purposely. In the Patty Berglund “self-written” sections there exist a few mistakes in writing that many young writers seem to make (cliche, passive voice, etc.), if anything that Franzen dumbs the writing down a bit in these sections makes the book better.

In sections in which Franzen returns to narration, the book flies by with exceptional use of symbols as well as metaphor. Walter, in his own sub-plot (though I’m not really sure this book has a major plot), is attempting to save a Cerulean Warbler, the bird on the cover. Franzen certainly sticks a lot of himself into the character of Walter (Franzen being an avid bird-watcher), but in review I look at the significance of the bird as how easy it is to cage. Freedom is in many instances almost arguing that we need the cage, that if we are totally and unabashedly free then we will destroy ourselves. This the recurring theme: character is unhappy, character sees something that will bring them happiness, character is torn between a rock and a hard place, character makes a decision. This is not really even hidden beneath a grand veneer. Yet despite this almost cut and paste situation in each section, the book takes you through a chaotic range of feelings, all of which avoid feeling forced, contrived, or over-the-top.

The term “freedom” seems to carry this grand connotation and breezy, comforting feel with it. Franzen succeeds greatly in weighing it down and complicating it. Freedom at whose expense? Freedom to do what? Never once does he get into a tired debate of free-will, instead going heavily into the consequences of every decision we make and the inherent togetherness of our close friends and family in these decisions. That true freedom actually entails doing what we don’t necessarily want to do. While there is no villain in the novel, Richard Katz stands out as the character who embodies total freedom, and yet he is the character that is clearly not the one to model your life after. While never being dismissed, he does end up feeling inadequate and unhappy, perhaps in turmoil. Meanwhile, our other characters seem to come to terms with what they have to do to coexist with freedom.

Freedom somehow takes chaos and turns it into an effective novel about people and decisions. I say this jokingly, but part of me really did not want to like it so I could somehow justify having not read Jonathan Franzen. Yet now that I have I can’t deny that it was worth my time. You win this time, Franzen.

Recommended to: Those looking for a literary family drama that turns into big ideas.

Avoid as if it’s returning the books from your classes this semester in the midst of downpour the likes of has not been seen since… well, it was just a lot of rain and I didn’t have an umbrella: Hard to discourage people from reading a good book, but if you really despise a book that gets randomly and overtly sexual (Thomas Pynchon levels at times), then you will at moments be upset by Freedom.


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